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5 Principles for Moral Leadership

Benjamin Franklin wasn't above a little "slick PR" but he believed that the appearance of integrity would inevitably be undone without the reality in support of it.
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Accomplished leaders are like master craftsmen: their first principles are best practices, the felt wisdom of experience and reflection.

Take Benjamin Franklin. In his Autobiography, he describes 13 precepts for self-improvement he coined as a young man. They include Resolution ("Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve"), Industry, ("Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions"), and Order ("Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time").

When the penniless printer from Philadelphia became one of the leading men in America, his admirers understood the enormous benefit his example could provide. "[Y]ou yourself framed a plan by which you became considerable," observed one, who implored Franklin to share it in hopes of "aiding all happiness, both public and domestic."

For inspiration, I assign Franklin's Autobiography to students in my business ethics class at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Then I challenge them to derive principles of their own with an eye toward strong moral leadership. With their permission, I wanted to share five favorites from my fall class.

1. Put a Face on It

Unlike Franklin's experience, many of our work relationships will involve people we will never meet. Dan, an IT professional, makes the obvious but often overlooked point that it is "easy to engage in unethical or immoral behavior when you don't have to see the person whom you are affecting." Accordingly, he always tries to put a face with a name, finding photos of the people he interacts with on LinkedIn or other online directories. "Associating a face with the interactions reminds me that my actions affect a real person," he says, "not just some faceless name in an email address line."

2. Manage by Listening Rather Than Telling

Unusually precocious, Franklin knew the awkward status of being junior in age but senior in position. Drawing on her own experience working for an industrial supplier, Lindsay observes that a promising associate is often placed in a leadership role "before she may be ready," with the result that she finds herself "fighting an uphill battle to do well and gain the respect of those around her with more tenure and experience." Accordingly, Lindsay contends that one must establish a professional dynamic of mutual respect. "I am only successful if the people I manage have my back and respect me," she says. "I am nothing if I do not respect and support the work that they do day in and day out.

3. Be Flexible, Not Dogmatic

Franklin's rejection of a rigid approach to problem solving spoke to Drew, a corporate trust analyst. "Businesses leaders need to be flexible and not dogmatic about their beliefs and intellectual frameworks," he says. Reflecting on Alan Greenspan's leadership in the years before the financial crisis, he faults the former Fed Chair not for failing to anticipate the crisis, but for believing that such an event could never occur. "Greenspan relied too heavily on frameworks," he says, "and not enough on doing everything in his power to rationally understand what was going on and make adjustments to his policies as needed." For Drew, strict adherence to dogma not only binds a leader's hands, it can blind him to problems his framework won't admit.

4. Follow Published Rules of Conduct

Franklin wrote his precepts in a memorandum book he carried with him wherever he went. The aim was to remind him of the behavior he aspired to -- and to shame him whenever he failed to live up to it. An executive at a Fortune 50 company, Megan observes that, while the "Code of Conduct" is a mainstay of the modern office, "many people disregard these published rules." Such a tendency not only undermines the rules, when managers flout them, it reinforces a spirit of lawlessness. A fish rots from the head down. If rules are important enough to be written down, they are important enough to be followed -- by everyone.

5. Respect the Bottom Line, but Don't Worship It

"[A]fter getting the first hundred Pound," Franklin observed in the Autobiography, "it is more easy to get the second." Yet, as Patrick, a student with experience working in renewable energy, observes, the additional gain can sometimes come at too high a cost. "I don't believe that the pursuit of profit on its face is immoral," he says, but "I do believe that a relentless focus on profit often leads to immoral behavior." The same may be said for any single-minded focus that excludes all other goods. For leaders, a sense of perspective and an ability to step back are essential to balancing moral integrity with corporate mission. At the same time, Patrick notes, the emergence of companies that have double or triple bottom lines of profit, social impact, and sustainability "indicates that certain businesses either share this principle or have very slick PR teams."

Benjamin Franklin wasn't above a little "slick PR" -- how else to explain a book where one presents himself as a paragon of self-improvement? -- but he believed that the appearance of integrity would inevitably be undone without the reality in support of it. The principles described above are no doubt demanding, but so is any standard of leadership worth the trouble of writing down.

John Paul Rollert teaches business ethics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business

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